GOP Boosts Odds of Keeping Senate Control as Trump Rebounds

(Bloomberg) -- Republicans are maintaining an edge over Democrats in their quest to keep control of the U.S. Senate in November’s election, an outcome that hinges on about a dozen key races.

With just over five months to go before voters head to the polls, GOP Senate leaders say they’re buoyed by continued economic growth, an uptick in President Donald Trump’s lackluster approval ratings, and strong Republican primary winners. GOP Florida Governor Rick Scott is spending big in his effort to unseat three-term Democratic Senator Bill Nelson.

Democrats face a difficult path to reverse the GOP’s 51-49 Senate majority. Their most likely route is to keep all 26 of their party’s seats on the November ballot, and then pick up two of the only three competitive seats held by Republicans.

"It’s the most lopsided map either party has seen in a midterm since 1938,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan election newsletter. “They’re playing so much defense that even though they need just two seats to retake the Senate, it’s going to be very difficult.”

Still, there are some races where Democrats could catch a break. Another vulnerable Democrat, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, may be aided by a potential third-party campaign by Don Blankenship, an ex-convict and coal baron who lost the GOP nomination. And the 10 Democrats up for re-election in states Trump won in 2016 raised nearly $24 million during the first quarter, more than twice as much as their GOP opponents.

“Senate Democrats are very bullish about the 2018 elections, but we are taking nothing for granted,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Thursday.

Here’s a look at the year’s closest Senate races:

Trump-State Democrats on the Hot Seat

Five Democrats in states Trump won in 2016 have the most to worry about, led by Nelson in Florida. Scott is a former health-care executive who can dip into his personal fortune to fund his campaign.

“Money is going to be a real problem for Democrats there,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Rick Scott has plenty to spend and it will be hard for Democrats to keep up.”

Already, Scott is spending more than $1 million a week on TV ads, and a May 4-7 Florida Atlantic University poll gave him a 44 to 40 percent lead over Nelson among registered voters.

In Indiana, Democrat Joe Donnelly is leaning on his ties to farmers, veterans and labor unions as he seeks a second term in a state Trump won by 19 percentage points. He’s emphasizing his votes for Trump nominees including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

GOP nominee Mike Braun is a businessman and former Indiana state legislator who touts himself as a political outsider and embraces just about every policy move Trump makes. Like Scott, he can self-finance his campaign. Donnelly and Braun were statistically tied in a May 10-15 Gravis Marketing poll of 400 likely voters.

Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, also has a reputation for bipartisanship, but her state’s increasing Republican tilt has made her a top target. Facing off against GOP state Attorney General Josh Hawley, she held a 4-point lead in a May 9-10 poll of 898 likely state voters by Missouri Scout, a nonpartisan news agency.

McCaskill has some factors in her favor. Democrats could be helped by the sex scandal involving involving Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, a Republican who said Tuesday he’s resigning effective Friday. Also, McCaskill ended the first quarter with a $9.4 million cash-on-hand advantage over Hawley.

In West Virginia, Manchin is running against Republican state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who defeated Blankenship in this month’s primary. Blankenship may siphon off support from the GOP nominee by running as a third-party candidate -- though such an effort may be thwarted by West Virginia’s sore-loser law -- or he could launch a write-in campaign.

Trump won West Virginia by 42 percentage points and remains popular there.

Manchin has crafted his own political brand as a centrist and former governor who stands up for West Virginia’s coal mining industry, backs gun rights and often works with Republicans. He says he has a good working relationship with Trump and voted for many of his nominees, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

In North Dakota, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp won her seat by 1 percentage point in 2012 and is being challenged by the state’s lone House member, Republican Kevin Cramer. Trump carried North Dakota by 36 points, and Heitkamp has been highlighting her work with Republicans on a banking deregulation measure this year and her efforts to aid the state’s agriculture interests.

Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, who leads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, rejected predictions of "a great blue wave" in November. “If you’re a Democrat in a red state and you’ve been blocking President Trump’s agenda, then you have a lot to explain,” he said in an interview.

GOP-Held Seats at Risk

The only vulnerable incumbent Republican on the ballot, Nevada Senator Dean Heller, also has the distinction of being the only GOP senator from a state Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. Trump aided him in March by persuading conservative Danny Tarkanian to run for the House instead of challenging Heller for the Republican nomination. Heller will face Democratic Representative Jacky Rosen in November.

Heller won in 2012 by just over 1 percentage point, and the state’s increasingly Democratic bent gives the party hope.

“He can’t afford to lose any Republican voters, and that’s not enough for him to win,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Inside Elections newsletter.

The seat of retiring Arizona GOP Senator Jeff Flake is also a toss-up. Facing off in the Aug. 28 GOP primary are Representative Martha McSally and former state Senator Kelli Ward, who unsuccessfully challenged Senator John McCain in the 2016 Senate primary. The winner will run against Democratic Representative Kyrsten Sinema.

Tennessee Senator Bob Corker’s decision to retire opens another GOP seat as a potential Democratic pickup. Corker easily won with 65 percent of the vote in 2012, but Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn’s race to replace him is a nail-biter in the heavily Republican state. Former Governor Phil Bredesen is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, and his entry had GOP party officials unsuccessfully urging Corker to re-enter the race.

“I think if the race were held today, Bredesen would win,” Duffy said. “That’s a very viable race for Democrats, despite how red that state is.”

Democrats at Risk, but Breathing Easier

A cluster of Senate Democrats from other red states have appeared safer in recent months, although their races can’t be ignored. They include Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Jon Tester of Montana. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio has a solid GOP challenger in Representative Jim Renacci, though Brown still is favored.

In Minnesota, Democratic Senator Tina Smith, who replaced Al Franken in January when he resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations, will be on the ballot as GOP state Senator Karin Housley emerges as a leading challenger.

The Wild Cards

Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz is being challenged by Democratic Representative Beto O’Rourke, and an April Quinnipiac University Poll showed O’Rourke was pulling within striking distance of the Tea Party favorite Cruz, with Cruz leading by just three percentage points. A new Quinnipiac poll on Wednesday, though, shows Cruz with a more comfortable 50-39 percent lead.

O’Rourke can count on a surge in progressive support, but it’s not clear yet that a Democrat can win in the Republican-dominated state, Gonzales said.

In Mississippi, Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith must win a November special election to keep the seat she was appointed to in March after the retirement of Republican Senator Thad Cochran. She’s being challenged within the GOP by state Senator Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite who in 2014 narrowly lost the primary to Cochran. On the Democratic side, former U.S. representative and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy is among those expected to seek the party nomination.

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